Monday, October 14, 2013

A Slut by Any Other Name (Would Still be a Sociolinguistic Mechanism of Patriarchal Oppression)

Halloween is coming, and around the country pumpkins are popping up on porches, people are buying 10-lb bags of candy without being ashamed to make eye-contact with the cashier, and everyone has one thing on their minds:

Nope, unfortunately it's not delicious Reese's Peanut Butter Pumpkins.

It's sluts. Or being slutty. Or not being slutty. Or trying to decide if you should be more or less slutty. Basically, when the leaves start to change and temperatures start to drop, we, as a culture, have sluttiness on the brain. Whether you are writing Facebook statuses about how stupid slutty girls' costumes are, pinning a "slut pride" button on your crop top, or just trying to decide what to wear for mandatory costume day at the office, you can't even get through all the syllables in the word October without at least getting a slut-blur in your periphery.

Hopefully, I can do something today to help all us grrly girls (and all the people who love us) to enjoy this year's Halloween festivities without worrying that you or someone you love is too slutty, not slutty enough, or just right. My purpose is neither to engage in a brutal slut-shaming fest nor to start a slut-pride riot among angry women in sexy cat costumes.So, friends, grab your feminist theory tool belt and your thinking cap, because we are about to blast through a wall of patriarchy several centuries deep and explore this Halloween-induced slut-mania from the inside out.

Let's start by looking at some pictures of popular Halloween costumes:

all images from Spirit Halloween Store

Did you notice any trends or patterns here? Maybe a subtle stylistic difference between the men's and women's costumes? You can say it however you want, but the ugly truth is that the slutifaction of Halloween costumes disproportionately affects women year after year after year. If you need more evidence besides these pictures (and every Halloween party you have ever attended past the age of 15), check out Fuck No Sexist Halloween Costumes on tumblr. While men are more than capable of having valuable thoughts about this topic and engaging with it if they want to, unlike costume-clad women, they can easily avoid it and still dress up. Because "slutty" has become the norm for women's costumes, women who want to dress up for Halloween have no choice but to wrestle with the dilemma of slut-mania and ultimately pick a side. You can choose to don a not-revealing costume, but you are almost guaranteed to stick out just like Cady Heron at her first Halloween party with the Plastics (if you don't get this reference, please go watch Mean Girls immediately).  Femininity and feminism collide when we answer the question What am I going to be for Halloween this year? This is EXACTLY why it is worth our time to explore the who, what, why, and how of the Slutty Halloween phenomenon and make an informed and empowered decision.

Even though it sucks big time, the incredibly conspicuous gender bias of the Halloween costume industry shouldn't really surprise us all that much. In fact, portraying/conceptualizing women in a hypersexualized way is one of the things that western culture does best. [Bonus: Do yourself a favor and check out this tumblr. You won't regret it.] Halloween, however, is really the perfect time to consider the entire concept of the slut and how it used to control women's behavior, feelings about themselves, and relationship to their sexuality. Let's take advantage of this slut-crazy season and get to the bottom of what is really going on with sluts, prudes, and the society that labels us that way.

Let's start with one (not so) little question: What does 'slut' actually mean? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the term 'slut' refers to a sexually promiscuous woman. For a more comprehensive explanation of the word, let's go to Womanwords (a really incredible dictionary of words about women by Jane Mills). Mills's general definition is pretty much identical to the Merriam-Webster one, but the etymology of slut she provides is really telling: slut entered the English language in the 14th century and referred to any person who was gross and untidy and looked sloppy. By the 16th century, it was almost exclusively used as a denigration for unchaste women, and this meaning has persisted until the modern era. In Slut!: Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation,  Leora Tanenbaum explains that slut doesn't always exclusively apply to one's sexual behavior- it is often a negative term used to describe a grrl's failure to conform to normative standards of femininity. You can really see how this works in her description of the connotative meaning of 'The Slut': she's low-class, wears too much make-up and too-tight clothes, she isn't as polished and refined as the 'good girls' who know how to keep their sexuality hidden away discreetly. (pg xv-xvi).

Like most socially constructed labels (especially those that apply to women), 'slut' can be defined almost more effectively by defining it's opposite- the not-slut. The not-slut is chaste, modest, willing to submit to the control of her father or husband, and definitely not ever horny. In "Daddy Little's Girls," (an essay that epitomizes the feminist fist pump), Breanne Fahs articulates the (often implicit) cultural messages women and grrls receive about the importance of sexual purity: "Girls are taught not to want sex, wile boys are taught to have an essential sexual appetite that girls must resist." She also explains that western society and the widespread culture of chastity, "present adolescent women as victims of sexuality, interested only in penile-vaginal intercourse, and lacking in ability to negotiate sexual subjectivity and desire... We socialize young women into a framework where they cannot assert their own needs because of their inscribed passivity in early sexual exchanges...Sex for girls is portrayed as merely a byproduct of, or an avenue toward, romantic love rather than something that girls strongly desire or find appealing by itself." Day-uhm! (Like a total bad ass) Fahs certainly doesn't pull any punches when she's attacking the patriarchy. Everything in our culture tells us that good girls don't have sexual urges, don't want to get nasty unless they do it with a diamond and a gold band on their left hands, and do not have/should not want any autonomy over their own sexuality (and of course, that gross, unmarriageable sluts do).

Just in case you don't believe me or Breanna Fahs, I'm going to rely on my favorite feminist dictionary (Jane Mills's Womanwords). The definitions and history of nymphomania and clitoris provide excellent (and horrifying) examples of just how present and pervasive patriarchal constructions of "appropriate femininity" and "the slut" truly are. Nymphomania was an ACTUAL MEDICAL DIAGNOSIS in the Victorian era and was defined as a "feminine disease characterized by morbid and uncontrollable sexual desire." In contrast to the relatively common diagnosis and treatment of nymphomania, satyriasis, the male equivalent in the Victoria medical lexicon, was rarely treated and male "sufferers" were often referred to in glorified terms such as "sexual athletes." Before I explain the "treatment" for nymphomania, let me pause for a moment to give you a bit of history on everyone's favorite lady part, the clitoris. In 1593, a church-sanctioned (male) witch investigator "discovered" the clitoris between the legs of an accused witch. He was so shocked by it that, in his official report, he referred to it as "the Devil's teat" and from that point on the presence of an enlarged clitoris beneath the petticoat of an accused witch was enough to conclusively convict her. Much later, during the Victorian period, male-dominated authoritative bodies (this time the medical community) once again associated the clit with something dangerous lurking within its female host. However, these learned men of science and reason didn't waste time on something as silly as witch hunts; no, they understood an enlarged clitoris as indisputable evidence of hysterical nymphomania. When a woman was diagnosed with this condition (most commonly as a result of being caught masturbating, stimulating the clit during sex, or just being horny a lot), surgeons routinely performed complete clitoridectomies (removing the entire clit). This "cured" the patient and effectively restricted her sexuality from existing outside of the procreative arena.

Gloria Steinem (feminist and all around bad-ass), offered her take on the once common diagnosis and treatment of nymphomania and tied it to more contemporary modes of sexual repression in Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions: "Nymphomania... was mainly used to condemn any woman who made more sexual demands that one man could handle... The sexually aggressive woman [of the post 1960s] is a slut... but the sexually aggressive man is just normal." It's true. The slut label seems to only apply to women. In Gendered Lives, Julia T. Wood cites one study (Stanley, 1977) that found that there exist 220 terms to describe sexually promiscuous women, but only 22 such terms referring to men. It may seem somewhat trivial, but this shit matters, grrls. Wood explains, "Language is not neutral. It reflects cultural values and is a powerful influence on our perceptions... much of our language devalues females and femininity by trivializing, depreciating, and diminishing women and anything described as feminine." As a reflection of our cultural values, the slut label, and all its synonyms, stinks. It implicitly and insidiously tells women and men over and over again that women who express autonomous sexual desire are gross and slutty while men who do the same are normal.

The slut label is a sociolinguistic mechanism by which patriarchal norms such as the idea that women are property and that women's sexuality should be controlled and regulated by male proprietors (husbands and fathers) are both established and reinforced throughout the reigning social structure. This is particularly apparent in the definition and history of the term chastity (once again, brought to you courtesy of the best dictionary ever, Womanwords). Chaste/chastity are terms that refer to someone who is pure from unlawful (meaning pre- or extra- marital) sexual intercourse and, in all its various historical and contemporary connotations, has overwhelming feminine associations. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, chastity became an "essential feminine virtue" in both religious and secular contexts, and denying a woman's chastity was widely accepted as the most serious insult against her largely because of the threat posed to patrilineal blood lines by female infidelity and the devaluation of a father or husband's lady-property if she became "tarnished." It is also interesting to note that the ONLY period in which there exists documented evidence of equivalent concern for male chastity occured between the years 1630 and 1640.
Breanne Fahs makes the connection between the historical context and the contemporary moment: "The culture of chastity encourages women to construct themselves as sexual property, becoming, in the most literal sense, the property of their fathers and husbands... When we condone the treatment of women as sexual property, we also condone the most literal terms of patriarchal culture, where the 'law of the father' reigns even at the expense of the daughter's sexual health and sexual agency." So, you see, grrls, all this slut-mania really just functions to restrict and control female sexuality and sexual behavior and ensure that we are all solidly under the control of the men who are supposed to own us. 

So, if the root of the whole mythology of the slut thing is adherence to antiquated social norms, why is it so pervasive in our modern, sex-obsessed society? What an awesome question; I'm so glad you asked! One huge reason for all this slut-mania is the deep-seated social dogma that a woman's individual worth is determined by her sexual purity. This notion  is inexorably connected not only to the transaction that occurred between fathers and potential husbands when women were traded for dowries, but also to the perceived sexual impurity of maids, servants, and slaves (14th- 20th century according to to Womanwords) who frequently were used as sexual objects and abused by their employers or owners and stood as a contrast to the perceived sexual purity and superiority of the upper-class "ladies." In the 21st century, the slut label persists as a means of establishing social value and individual self worth for women. Tanenbaum offers a contemporary example in Slut! through her assertion that in high school and middle school, sluts are the ultimate social pariahs and are frequently targets of ridicule from peers in all other social strata because their bodies and emotions are considered public property for use and abuse. The public disgust at Miley Cyrus and acceptance of Taylor Swift serve as an example from recent pop culture. I'm sure we can all come up with countless other examples of the ways in which women and girls are denied value or heralded as superior based on their perceived slutiness or lack thereof.

Another reason for the widespread acceptance of the patriarchal construct of the slut is the dominance of the culture of purity/chastity in religious messages for young people and sexual education. Because these messages are presented as facts by adults in positions of authority during formative stages in the development of sexual identity, young people often internalize them. Fahs drives this point home with her argument that the culture of purity (specifically its assumption that purity equals freedom from that which contaminates young women), "situates sexuality as dirty, sinful, and potentially polluting- for women. This definition encourages women to construct sex as not a normal part of human existence, but as something that fundamentally corrupts them and as something that brings forth disease and contamination." We have all been brainwashed in a million tiny little ways to believe that women who are not sexually pure are dirty and irredeemably tarnished and to put the female virgin on a pedestal of pristine purity.

"It's an Everlast!"

This slut thing is a real problem. A big, festering, sinkhole of a problem that negatively affects women in every kind of way. On an individual level, the slut-ethos, particularly the continued prevalence and acceptance of slut-shaming, hurts women and grrls by: (1) fostering a fucked up relationship between women and their own sexuality, (2) causing us grrls to internalize negative patriarchal norms regarding our sexual feelings and behaviors, and, (3) (according to Leora Tanenbaum in Sluts!), sends a messages to young people that boys are free to explore and express their (heteronormative) sexuality, while women and girls are most decidedly not. In The Purity Myth, Jessica Valenti articulates this perfectly: “Sex for pleasure, for fun, or even for building relationships is completely absent from our national conversation. Yet taking the joy out of sexuality is a surefire way to ensure not that young women won’t have sex, but rather that they’ll have it without pleasure.” Our slut-obsession, and it’s inseparable BFF slut-shaming, tell women to be ashamed of their sexuality, and that seeking sex and enjoying sex are shameful, inappropriate things for women to do. With the term “slut” in its lexicon, the patriarchy doesn’t need to work hard to keep control of women’s sexuality- it practically restricts itself.

Slut-shaming and purity worship also lead to some very real health consequences for women and grrls who internalize these patriarchal messages and attempt to live according to these values. Breanne Fahs supports this claim with some really troubling statistics:
(1) Girls who have taken virginity/purity/chastity pledges are 1/3 less likely to use contraceptives than girls who have not once they become sexually active, largely because the majority of girls who sign such pledges do not have access to comprehensive sex education or contraceptives.
(2) Because such pledges and abstinence-based programs often imply, or even emphasize, sex as penile-vaginal intercourse, a disproportionately high number of teens who take these pledges engage in unprotected oral and anal sex because they "do not believe that these acts count as sex."
(3) Teens who take virginity/purity/chastity pledges are significantly less likely to be tested for STIs, but significantly more likely to contract oral and anal STIs.


In addition to causing some serious problems for individual women, our cultural obsession with sluts and virgins plays a nasty, and much sneakier, role in broader society. Leora Tanenbaum explains that slut-shaming highlights that sexism is alive and well and that the sexual double-standard is as powerful as ever. Fahs backs up her argument and asserts that chastity culture and slut-shaming "strip women of their sexual agency by reinforcing the idea that patriarchal control of women’s sexuality is not only acceptable, but desirable.” Slut-shaming, the glorification of chastity, and all other forms of designating individual worth according to sexuality leads to victim-blaming and rape culture (I will talk more about this in a future post, I pinky swear), and reinforces patriarchal norms that denigrate and disempower women and grrls on a massive scale.


The slut label (and all the negative connotations practically oozing off of it) both asserts and strengthens the power of patriarchal dogma governing the female body and sexuality that, when viewed outside of social processes, are repulsive and oppressive. Breanne Fahs demystifies this process, describing the culture of chastity/slut-shaming as, “a social space that normalizes the oppression of women's bodies via severe control over the developing sexual expression, resulting not only in a reinscription of their bodies as sexual property but also in the acceptance of some of the most literal terms of patriarchal culture: women's bodies exchanged between men, communities of women organized around the negation of sexual desire, little attention to roles of mothers in the sexual socialization process, and old-fashioned ideas about women as 'tarnished' and 'impure' when sexually active." When we call someone (or even ourselves) a slut, we might as well fist-bump the patriarchy because we are both playing by their rules and proving their relevance.

This shit gets extra complicated when we start to think about it specifically from the perspective of us girly grrls because despite our best efforts, we always seem to need to toe the line between being attractive enough to be feminine, but not so attractive as to stumble into the realm of sluts. As I discussed in the previous post (“Real Women Have… Bodies”), our society holds women to extremely high standards of feminine beauty by assigning value to us based on how satisfactorily we appease the demands of the male gaze. When we throw the purity mandate into the mix, things get really confusing really quickly. 

Jessica Valenti explains this like a boss in one of the more famous quotes from The Purity Myth: “What’s the difference between venerating women for being fuckable and putting them on a purity pedestal? In both cases, women’s worth is contingent upon their ability to please men and to shape their sexual identities around what men want.” This shit is ridiculous, grrls. Fahs takes this explanation to the next level when she argues that chastity culture and specifically purity balls, “put girls’ sexuality on display even while denying that same sexuality. [This] promotes a variety of mixed messages, as [it] focuses on sex but never mentions sex.” Basically, in order to remain appropriately feminine and still stay on the “right” side of slut-divide (as defined in the patriarchal rule book), women have no choice but to relinquish sexual autonomy to an “appropriate” male proprietor such as a husband or father. Well, grrls, I only have one thing to say.

Fuck that.

Grrls (and everyone else), it is OKAY to feel sexy, to look sexy, to dress provocatively, to flirt publicly, and to have all the consensual sex your little heart (or any other body part) desires, regardless of the deeply-rooted patriarchal forces telling you otherwise. It’s also okay to dress modestly, behave conservatively, and abstain from casual (or all) sex. It’s okay to get horny. It’s okay to get yourself off. As long as you are doing what YOU want because you want to, and not because society or the patriarchy or your pastor or girlfriend or dad or some bro at a party (or anyone else for that matter) are telling you to, it’s a-okay, grrlfriend.

It is, however, NOT OKAY to determine your value or social standing (or anyone else’s) based on how successfully you (or she) conform to patriarchal constructions of femininity and female sexuality. It is NOT okay to insult someone by calling them a slut or a whore or a prude or any other word that denigrates women by reducing them nothing more than glorified blow-up dolls or Bridal Barbies. Jessica Valenti challenges women to break away from these damaging, restrictive labels and to, “start to see ourselves- and encourage men to see us- as more than just the sum of our sexual parts; not as virgins or whores, as mothers or girlfriends, or as existing only in relation to men, but as people with independent desires, hopes, and abilities.” She’s right. You are more than that; you deserve more than that. We are better than that, and we have to not only demand to be treated as such, but also begin to treat each other like fully human people, worthy of respect and dignity.


So, bois and grrls and everyone in between and on either side, this Halloween, get out there, have some fun, and stop worrying so much about who’s a slut, who’s a prude, and who’s a patriarchy-approved woman. If you respect yourself, respect each other, and stop thinking about women as anything less than a complete people (and so much more than just vaginas with a visitor’s log), the slut issue will work itself out, and the patriarchy will lose a little more of its influence in the social structures being demolished, rebuilt, and modified with the passage of time.


Monday, September 2, 2013

Real Women Have... Bodies, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying about the Patriarchy and Love my Body


If you follow feminist-y things on the internet, you've probably seen this meme floating around. It originated from the facebook group "No Hope for the Human Race," and has been pissing people off in a big way. This kind of image is not really surprising. We all know the stereotype about feminists and how we are all fat, ugly man-haters.

shame away

Pfft. Whatever.

That is not the aspect of this image I want to talk about today. I want to talk about body image, the male gaze, and the outrageous standards of female beauty that we all eat up like so much (low-fat, sugar-free) candy.

The awesome feminist group One Million Vaginas posted this image to their facebook page earlier in the week. The comment thread was mind blowing. It's truly amazing how many people feel free to post either gross fat-shaming, uninformed "concern trolling" health related bologna, or just generally mean-spirited comments in a pro-feminist, pro-body-acceptance forum. However, one comment really affected me and stuck with me: 

Oh. My. Word. There were so many more such comments, and not just from plus-sized ladies. Women with a whole lot of different shapes wrote about their experiences feeling shamed because of their bodies. Whether you are fat or skinny or somewhere in between, there is someone out there just waiting for the opportunity to tell you that you're body just doesn't cut it. You're too fat, you should eat less or no one will ever want you. Ugh, she's a total butterface. Your body is okay, but you're sooooo flat-chested. She's too skinny, I like a woman with a little meat on her bones.

I think she's gorgeous too, but you see my point.
AHHHHHHH!!! It never stops. No matter how your body looks, it's never good enough. There is always something to hate. Something to change. Something to work on. Well, ladies and sirs of all shapes and sizes, I invite you to take a step back, look at where this fucked up notion of body-shaming came from, and just say:

Just so that we are all on the same page, let's start with a few numbers:

In Gendered Lives, Julia T. Wood compiles some really troubling statistics about gender and body image from several polls and studies conducted in the early 2000s. 87% of American men report being "very or somewhat satisfied with their appearance," AND even those men who aren't happy with their bodies (in overwhelming numbers) seldom report that negative body-image affects their overall sense of self-worth in terms of competence and value.

Sadly this is not true for women. According to almost all of the studies cited, "for women, dislike of their bodies often affects overall self-esteem... [and] concern about weight starts early." At age 5, most girls surveyed express negative self-images based on weight, at least 40% of fourth grade girls diet, and on average 25% of girls and women in the United States are dieting at any given time. Please keep in mind that this 25% does NOT include the more than 5 million people, the vast majority of whom are women and girls, who are suffering from diagnosed eating disorders. (All this information can be found on pages 141-143 if you're interested).

I feel you, girl. I'm not impressed either. This is BEYOND fucked up, and we have been buying into it and letting it continue for far too long. If only there was some way, some movement or something, to combat this assault against women's self esteem. 

What's that? It's a bird! It's a plane! Oh... look! It's <da, da, dummm> FEMINISM!!!! Hooray!

This is a topic that feminists have been pissed off about for years, you guys. Not only is the topic of body-image/body-shaming an excellent example of the way feminism is relevant to our lives as grrly girls, it is an even better example of how we NEED feminism to unpack issues like these that seem so embedded in our culture that we don't even know how they got there in the first place. 

For starters, a whole bunch of really smart feminists have been talking about this thing called The Male Gaze for a long time now. Basically, the term "Male Gaze" comes from Laura Mulvey, a feminist film theorist, who (in an essay called "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema") explained that because the camera is positioned for and from the perspective of the normative male audience, women are most often "possessed by" and not "possessors of" the social gaze. This process disenfranchises women because it reduces them to passive OBJECTS of the gaze instead of active SUBJECTS of their own reality. (If you think that you would understand this concept better if a dinosaur explained it to you, you are in luck. Just check out this Dinosaur Comic.) Even though this started out as just film theory, in the years since 1975, many other super smart feminists have expanded this notion and applied to a much wider range of female experiences including cat-calling, females in public (and frequently powerful) positions, and the self-perception of body and individual value. 

So, basically, here's the deal. Because (as laid down by one of my all-time favorite feminists Simone de Beauvoir) in our society masculinity/men are constructed as the norm against which femininity/women stand as the Other, women are always constructed as an object existing within the realm of the male subject. This means that women, in order to seek social value and validation, constantly try to live up to demand of physical attractiveness and desirability set by the Male Gaze. You see, it's not that women are oppressed every time any man looks at them, or that women are only trying to be attractive to men. In fact, The Male Gaze doesn't REALLY refer to any specific man looking at any specific woman. It simply refers to the dominant social force controlling the standard of beauty for women. This social force is characterized as male because of the traditional construction of society within the framework of the masculine/feminine binary. One of the women surveyed by Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner for her amazing book The F Word says it best: "In our efforts to become the woman 'every man wants' and what we think we want ourselves to be, we are killing ourselves," (68). 

Grrls, we are completely surrounded.

Our desire to fit into this acceptable physical form of femininity is hard-wired into us from infancy. Julia Wood cites several surveys and studies comparing the way in which parents describe male and female infants of equal size, weight, and level of activity. Almost invariably, the male babies are described as, "strong, hardy, big, active," while the female babies are described as, "pretty, small, dainty, delicate," (155). Our clothes (and the stores in which we buy them) feed into this too. Wood points out that now and for the past, oh... FEW HUNDRED YEARS men's clothing tends to fit loosely and provide for activity and independent movement while women's clothing, "is designed to call attention to women's bodies and make them maximally attractive to viewers," (134). Wood reminds us that women are further exposed to these unrealistic standards of beauty when they enter retail stores because of the smaller-than-average mannequins (sized, on average, as a 2, 4, or 6) and very attractive female sales associates (she cites examples ranging from L'Oreal to Abercrombie and Fitch of openly basing hiring decisions on physical appearance). When we give little girls dolls and dress up kits, while their brothers play with trucks and blocks, we are telling them that boys build and do, while girls should tend to physical appearance and that clothes and accessories are important (163).

This picture makes me want to punch a whole bunch of somebodies (source)
Even though we CAN apply the notion of the male gaze to most everything that we do with our bodies, ladies, I gotta say: the media is the biggest offender. Mostly because it's everywhere we go. More than 98% of American homes contain at least one television (2/3 of which have cable and 4/5 of which are connected to a DVD player or streaming device); Kids aged 2-7 spend an average of 3.5 or more hours per day with some form of media; at age 6, the average American child has watched more than 5,000 hours of TV, and by age 18 that number jumps to 19,000 hours. Wood explains, "From newspapers to MTV, media shape  our understanding of gender," by providing us with, "models of what it means to be male or female," (233). Though there are a few exceptions to this rule, if women are to be taken seriously as characters, they must be very attractive, slender, and young, and they are almost always sexualized in some way. 

Take a wild guess as to which women from the movie Bridesmaids is the socially awkward one who no one initially wanted to invite to the party or, actually, socialize with at all. (Hint- it's the fat one)
The images of women offered by the media don't leave much to interpretation: pretty women are valuable, lovable, and have individual and social worth. Ugly (and especially fat) women do not, though they can be hilarious fuck ups or caricatures so ridiculous and buffoonish that no one could possibly identify with or emotionally connect to them. As my grrl Julia Wood preaches: "media repeat the cultural view of women as dependent, ornamental objects who exist to look good, please men, care for children, be sexually desirable and available," (237). 

Advertisements are just as heinous as movies and television shows in this regard. "Whereas men are seldom pictured nude or even partially unclothed, women habitually are... advertisements for make-up, cologne, shampoo, and clothes often show women attracting men because they used the products to make themselves irresistible," (Wood, 244). Don't believe me? Take a look at these two commercials, both of which are currently airing. 

There is a lot of face-palm in this commercial. Let's not even talk about the use of that awesome T-Rex song in dumb context and jump right into to feminist-y stuff: women are casually sexualized and objectified. This car is so amazing that it made all those hot colonial women rip off their clothes and become modern girls dressed in slutty Halloween costumes. They aren't trying to get you to buy into the car, they want you to buy into the notion that hot women will be turned on by it, or to associate this kind of car with the exposed idealized female form. This kind of objectification of the female body is so common that while you probably thought "What a dumb commercial," when you first saw it, and maybe even thought, "I wonder what half-naked colonial hotties have to do with Fiats?", you probably didn't think it was funny or especially demeaning.

Now, let's think about that Fiat commercial in the context of this commercial for (I wish it was less stereotypical): salad dressing.

It's a joke. Get it? We are so unfamiliar with the male body being objectified for the purpose of selling products that when it happens, we can't help but to see it as tongue and cheek. It's cute. It's funny. It's not serious. It's so overtly sexual that it loses all sexuality. Ultimately, it plays against the undercurrent of female body objectification to which we have become nearly immune to get a laugh and hopefully get consumers to connect their product more with that positive feeling than with the image of the sexualized "Zesty Man." 

Okay, okay. I hear a few grumbles from the back. Some of you are probably thinking, "We know the difference between fiction and reality. We know how unrealistic most media portrayals of women are. Seriously, does anybody ACTUALLY think these representations influence body-image for regular people?" Well, I hate to say it, but the answer is a big ole yes. Numerous studies have proven that unrealistic media representations of feminine beauty have a direct impact on self-perception, behavior, and individual values. One particularly compelling example of this occurred in Fiji in the 1990s. Despite the tradition of valuing heavier body-types as more attractive, when American television shows (specifically Beverly Hills, 90210) began to be broadcast in Fiji, an enormous number of young women began dieting and many women developed eating disorders (both of which were previously uncommon). Many young women from Fiji identified hyper-thin characters from the TV shows as their model when questioned about their new-found interested in weight-loss. 

This is dangerous. Movies, television shows, and especially advertisements tell us that normal bodies are unacceptable and encourage us to devalue the bodies we have and buy products to "fix" all the problems that make us feel unattractive. Whether it's weight loss pills, diet plans, wrinkle cream, hair dye, or wonderbras, women are spending billions of dollars in the battle against their bodies. Wood reminds us of one shocking example of this: In the 1960's when slim, angular bodies were considered beautiful, there was a spike in breast reduction surgeries. In the 1980's, larger breasts became the standard of beauty and breast augmentations rapidly increased in number. At this point, 80% of breast augmentations are for cosmetic reasons (and not reconstructive etc.). Furthermore, one in five college-aged women currently admit to eating less than is necessary to meet daily nutritional needs. These women cite "wanting to look like fashion models and actresses" as their motivations for placing such severe restrictions on their caloric intake (253).

Holy shit, ladies and gentlemen. This is messed up. And we have to stop buying into it. We have to stop looking at unrealistic images of female beauty and imagining that it reflects a lack in ourselves. We have to stop using the Male Gaze as the yardstick against which we determine our own worth. We have to stop talking shit to ourselves, calling ourselves too fat or too skinny or ugly or flat-chested or big-nosed or any other insult we can lob at ourselves. 

We have to stop because it's wrong. We have stop because we all have value, whether or not our bodies are considered "beautiful." We have to stop because social constructions of beauty are fiction and they are ever-changing. They are unattainable, and no matter how far we run, we will never catch them. But we also have to stop because body-shaming is just one more tool that the patriarchy uses to keep us in our place. As Rowe-Finkbeiner reminds us, "If young women are distracted by body image, and also if their self-esteem suffers in that struggle, then they are less likely to be advocates," (72).

So let's wear whatever the hell makes us happy. Let's look in the mirror and think, "Fuck Yeah!" (or at least "okay!"). Let's stop calling each other fat or ugly or skin and bones and start lifting each other up. Let's start laughing at commercials that demean and objectify women, instead of internalizing their messages that we are not yet good enough. We are here. We look the way we do, and that's a-okay. 

Let's no longer accept the shame and insecurity we've been made to feel as a reason NOT to speak out. Let's no longer accept messages like the one expressed by that first meme (of the grrl holding a "This is what a feminist looks like" sign) that physical appearance is an appropriate way to discuss (and demean) fellow feminists. Let's give the patriarchy the bird and mean it.

You're awesome, grrl. So, be happy, be healthy, and ignore any ass-hats that try to tell you otherwise.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

"I'm Not a Feminist, but...": Conflicting (?) Notions of Feminism and Femininity

Grrls, we need to talk. 

I don't know if you've noticed, but we've got a serious problem on our hands. I don't know whose fault this is, or even where it began, but something has gone terribly, terribly wrong. Brace yourselves, what I have to say is not pretty. 

<dramatic pause>

The majority of American women don't consider themselves feminists. 

Here is where I found this image.
I know, I know. I'm upset too. Don't worry, though, we are going to figure this out together. Let's start by taking a deep breath and looking at some numbers. According to a recent HuffPost/YouGov poll, 5% of women consider themselves "a strong feminist," and 18% considers themselves "a feminist." (Interestingly enough, 7% of men polled identified as "a strong feminist." Nicely done, sirs.)

What the fuck, ladies? What the hell is going with the 77% of women who are not feminists? It seems crazy. I mean, there is no way that the majority of U.S. women actually think that women should be second class citizens, right? RIGHT?! Well, grrls, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that no, it seems that the majority of women DO agree that women and men should have equal social, political, and economic rights. The bad news is that women (and men too) no longer see this as what it means to be a feminist. 

Does anybody else remember this

What about this cringe-inducing moment brought to us courtesy of Taylor Swift? In case you missed it, an interviewer asked Ms. Swift if she is a feminist and her response sent palms flying into faces across the nation:  "I don't really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life." 

Okay, so maybe we shouldn't be too surprised by these comments, considering that they come from two women who have made more money than I will ever have in my life singing things like:

 "I wanna be a flower/ Not a dirty weed/ I wanna smell like roses/ Not a baseball team/ And I swear maybe one day you're gonna/ Wanna make out, make out, make out with me" (Katy Perry)
"You change your mind/ Like a girl changes clothes/ Yeah, you PMS/ Like a bitch/ I would know," (Katy Perry)
and, (who could forget this timeless slut-shaming classic, loved by little girls everywhere)
"She's not a saint/ And she's not what you think/ She's an actress, whoa/ She's better known/ For the things/ that she does/ On the mattress, whoa" (Taylor Swift)

BTW, you should check out FeministTaylorSwift on twitter. It's pretty fantastic.

Don't misunderstand, it sucks that two powerful, successful young women chose to publicly decline a feminist identity, it's just not all that surprising considering the content of their lyrics. The thing that bugs me the most about this is that both women denied being feminists immediately before saying something that smells more than a little bit feministy. Even though Taylor seems a little confused about what feminism means (it's NOT "guys versus girls" for the record), the sentiment that success should be contingent upon effort and not gender identity is a pretty solidly feminist statement. 

These kind of I'm-not-a-feminist-but-I-think-like-one statements are something that I have seen normal, every-day, not-internationally-famous women do over and over again. On the first day of a Sociology of Gender class at my public university, the professor asked who in the class of 30-something mostly female college students considered themselves a feminist. ONLY TWO PEOPLE RAISED THEIR HANDS! I can't tell you how many times I have heard an otherwise intelligent, independent, and accomplished woman say, "Well, I wouldn't consider myself a feminist, but..." before uttering an entirely feminist statement (such as, "women should be paid equally for doing the same jobs as men," or "sexual harassment is unacceptable.") 

Credit where credit is due

One such woman is Daisy Barringer, a seemingly very intelligent woman who wrote a piece on xojane called "Taylor Swift doesn't Identify as a Feminist and Neither Do I," in which she claims, "I believe in equal political, economical and social rights for women and I wholly support the feminist movement, I just personally don’t define myself as such." She goes on to explain that she doesn't identify as feminist because (1) "At times, feminists come across as angry," (2) "Many feminists come across as self-righteous," (3) "I feel a lot of times like the current feminist movement excludes minorities," (4) "I don’t always believe that women are at a disadvantage," and (5) "I’m not sure that I believe that the “oppression” of women is the fault of men." 
Feel free to shame the idiots responsible for this image.
I have to admit that her criticism about mainstream feminism failing to be inclusive of minorities is completely legit. It's a problem, and we, as feminists and just as decent human beings, need to address it and make serious changes. However, dismissing feminism altogether isn't going to make it any better. And let's face it, all her other reasons are either complete bullshit (as in factually inaccurate) or just plain stupid. By claiming that she can't be a feminist because she doesn't like the connotations attributed to the word by misogynists, anti-feminist assholes, and widespread ignorance, she is affirming the validity of these statements and undermining the tremendous gains achieved by feminists throughout history and in the modern world. 

But, grrls, don't start to gather up the tar and feathers just yet. You see, I hate to say it, but it seems that Daisy is closer to the rule than the exception. On, Brittany Oliver tells it like it is: "Feminists are often stereotyped as hairy-pitted activists who hate men, love women too much, are physically incapable of humor and probably don’t wear bras." Ouch! I don't love it, but it's true. HuffPost agrees: "The gulf between the percentage of people who identify as feminists and the percentage who believe in the equality of the sexes may be partly due to a branding problem for the word "feminism." Thirty-seven percent said they consider "feminist" to be a negative term, compared to only 26 percent who consider it a positive term. Twenty-nine percent said it's a neutral term."

 Holy shit, ladies! It seems we have a real image problem on our hands here. Feminism has become a dirty word, synonymous with bitchy, aggressive, asexual, dyke, whiner, ugly, etc, etc. The modern social connotation of feminism is at odds with western culture’s archetype of idealized femininity. Because gender identity is a fundamental, if not defining, feature of our social and cultural structures, claiming a feminist identity poses an enormous risk for women. For Katy Perry and Taylor Swift and all the women who didn't raise their hands on our first day of class, to identify as a feminist implies that you embody all of those awful stereotypes, that you are unattractive and pushy. In an amazing article from, Patricia Valoy explains her hesitation to identity as feminist as a young woman: "The truth is: I simply didn't understand what feminism was about, let alone how freeing it could be. I had misconceptions that feminism was about usurping men’s power and dominating them...I wanted to be free of constraining gender roles, of course...but I also wanted to be liked." In other words, for many women, identifying as a feminist (or failure to do so) is largely a personally, and not a politically, motivated decision. Furthermore, many western women both engage in and often thoroughly enjoy daily practices that seem at odds with the modern cultural connotation of feminism such as wearing pretty dresses, being the little spoon, and watching "girly" movies and television. As a result of this schism between the individual experiences and preferences of women who believe in gender equality and the man-hating, hairy-legged, Amazonian stereotype of feminism, many women feel further alienated from the feminist ideology of empowerment and equality.

Here's where this came from

It's no wonder that 77% of women do not identify as feminist, yet 82% of those polled said "yes" when asked, "Do you believe that men and women should be social, political, and economic equals?" Even though a large portion of young western women personally believe in the tenets of feminism, they seldom self-identify as ‘feminist’ because of the apparent contradictions between the connotative meaning of feminism in modern western culture and their lived experiences, both in their gendered roles within the larger (macro) community and their individual (micro) habits and practices. When this essentially feminine identity comes into conflict with the feminist ideology accepted by 82% of women, many women choose not to take the risk and simply say “Well, I’m not really a feminist, but…”

This lives here

This shit has got to stop. Seriously. Enough is enough. We MUST stop imagining that femininity and feminism are mutually exclusive. First of all, it's just plain wrong. But don't just take my word for it. Look it up in the dictionary. Meriam-Webster defines feminism as: "the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes." Brittany Oliver (the grrl who wrote the exceptional piece from agrees: "In fact, being a feminist simply means you are an advocate of the rights and equality of women. You don’t have to be anti-man to be pro-woman." Our grrl Patricia Valoy (author of the beautiful essay from takes it a step further: "More important than saying 'I am a feminist!' is doing the work necessary for women’s progress, and that is that what truly makes us feminists. And I don’t see anything scary about that." Being a feminist doesn't mean anything more than that you believe that there should be equality between the sexes. That's all. It's okay not agree with everything every feminist says and does. It's okay to be a feminist and wear make-up. It is only by exploring of the role of feminism in our daily lives, whether or not we identity as feminine, that we can empower ourselves and embrace our true, and full, identities as both women and human beings.

This is from here

Another important reason to stop this whole "I'm not a feminist, but..." nonsense is that this phenomenon is actually a little piece of a much larger and more damaging process. Mary Elizabeth Williams explains this really well in this really great article she wrote on

"You can call yourself or not call 
yourself whatever you want, 
but consider this. Nobody enjoys it more 
when a woman says she’s not a
 feminist than a misogynist. Nobody gets more
 gloatingly self-congratulatory 
about it, or happier about what 'real' women
 don’t need than someone who doesn't 
like women very much, especially not the 
uppity, outspoken, wanting pay equity 
and reproductive freedom types. 
Consider that any word that feared and 
derided has incredible power. 
And how beautiful and strong that makes it."

Feminism is the coming together of women to demand and protect our equality. Feminism has done many wonderful things for us throughout history, from securing female suffrage to gaining protection for victims of domestic violence, and will continue to do wonderful things for women all over the world if we just allow it. When we allow external, historically oppressive social structures (aka the patriarchy) to tell us that being a part of this movement is not okay, is somehow shameful, we lose our collective power. Calling yourself a feminist is a powerful, powerful thing because it connects you to an enormous community of women. Though we may not always agree on every detail, and we are not without our flaws both as individuals and as a movement, we have power, we make stuff happen, and we are all working towards the same goal at our core: equality, respect, and autonomy for all people, regardless of their sex. Lend your voice to the chorus of countless women demanding to be heard, to be respected, to be treated as human beings. I promise you won't regret it.

Okay, ladies, let's say it all together now: "I am a feminist." Didn't that feel good?